When approached to make a film centered on a new high-speed train opening on the island of Kyushu, award-winning Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows; Still Walking) first thought of the image of boys walking on railroad tracks in the film Stand by Me. It’s a classic image, and one that clearly had an influence on the appearance of the final product, as well as its premise of children on a journey of discovery, but to compare Kore-eda’s I Wish with Reiner’s Stand by Me beyond that image and basic story similarity would be inappropriate. Instead, the more appropriate comparison would be to legendary Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu’s quiet domestic dramas, whose work Kore-eda has been frequently compared to in the past. But while Ozu’s lens was mostly aimed at the drama that takes place between adults, Kore-eda’s recent fatherhood caused him to focus his gaze on children and their interactions with other children and adults. When that gaze is sharp, it finds some awe-inspiring moments (the original Japanese title of I Wish translates to “Miracle,” an apt title for the latter half of the film). However, at 128 minutes, the first half of the film takes too long in setting up the various stories, and like many of Ozu’s lesser works, audience members without endurance may find themselves falling asleep, missing the stronger, second half.
I Wish is the story of two brothers (played by real brothers Koki and Ohhsiro Maeda) who are separated due to their parents’ divorce. Meanwhile, a new high-speed rail line is being built, and one of the brothers hears that if one makes a wish the moment two such trains first pass each other, that wish will come true. Inspired to wish for his family to be reunited, he concocts a plan with his friends (and some of the adults around them) to journey to the place where the miracle is supposed to occur, keeping his brother informed of the proceedings through regular cell phone conversations.
And once the preparation for that journey finally begins, I Wish really takes off. The kids are charming in front of the camera, and occasional interactions with adults are sometimes incredibly touching (especially of note is an older couple late in the film; without spoiling anything, their scenes of contact with the children truly border on miraculous). Unfortunately, large chunks early in the film feel aimless, especially when it comes to many of the adult-child interactions, and I Wish just takes too long to go anywhere. Of course, there’s something to be said for slowly paced, nuanced domestic drama (I myself am a big admirer of Ozu’s work), but there needs to be a balance. It seems I Wish was marketed overseas as a family film, but I can’t imagine many American children sitting still for over two hours, especially those accustomed to the ADHD-friendly fare typically sold to them. Of course, the film is ultimately delightful and worth the effort, but whether American audiences are willing to sit still for long enough to get there is the problem. Like his obvious cinematic ancestor Yasujirô Ozu, director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s tendency of ambling along instead of getting to the point will bother less patient audiences, but any early flaws are made up for by the way Kore-eda frames the central journey of the film, as well as his knack for getting earnest, endearing performances from children.